The Cardinals are working to extend the contract of longtime catcher Yadier Molina for at least one more year and “probably” two more seasons, reports The Athletic’s Mark Saxon (subscription required).
Molina, 37, has been the Cardinals’ primary catcher since 2005 and, over the course of his career, has shouldered the largest workload of any backstop in the game. His durability is the stuff of legend, as evidenced by 15 straight seasons of at least 107 games caught and an average of 126.4 games caught per season during that remarkable stretch. From 2009-13, Molina caught at least 131 games per year. As recently as 2016, he started a ridiculous 142 games behind the plate.
Currently in the final season of a three-year, $60MM extension that pays him an even $20MM per year, it’s unlikely that Molina would command such a lofty salary under the terms of a new contract. The 2019 season, after all, was among the least-productive years he’s put together since breaking out as a big league regular (despite a league-wide uptick in offensive output). In 452 plate appearances, he hit .270/.312/.399. Molina’s low strikeout rate and excellent bat-to-ball skills have long helped him post quality batting averages, but last year’s 5.1 percent walk rate was the lowest of his career. His power dipped noticeably from its 2017-18 levels as well. Molina’s once-elite caught-stealing rate and framing numbers have also tailed off over the past couple of seasons, checking in closer to league average.
Molina, of course, is still a plenty useful backstop — one whose all-around value to the organization would surely be labeled as invaluable by the Cardinals themselves. Hammering out a specific price point could be difficult, though. Molina’s annual salary was already a high-water mark for catchers, and there’s no recent precedent for a catcher inking an extension at this point in his career. Then again, there’s no real precedent for a catcher with Molina’s track record in today’s game at all (as alluded to previously). By the time most catchers reach their age-38 seasons — Molina will turn 38 in July — most have either been downgraded to backup status or have simply retired.
The level at which Molina deems an offer to be suitable, then, is anyone’s guess. His career path in some ways mirrors that of longtime teammate Adam Wainwright, who looked to be running on fumes at the end of the 2018 season. Wainwright agreed to a one-year deal with a minimal $2MM base salary in 2019 and maxed out his incentives package with a bounceback 2019 effort that he parlayed into a $5MM deal for the 2020 season — but that comparison only goes so far. The two play vastly different positions, Molina is talking extension as opposed to a free-agent deal, and he’s still been healthy and reasonably productive on the field.
Saxon reported late last month that Molina would be willing to accept a reduced role in the second season of a new deal (2022), but it seems for the time being he’s still focused on functioning as a workhorse behind the plate. If that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine him settling for anything like the Wainwright deal. Free-agent catcher Robinson Chirinos, who shares an agent (Melvin Roman) with Molina, just signed a one-year deal with a $6.5MM guarantee for his age-36 season in Texas, but he doesn’t have Molina’s track record and isn’t ingrained into the very fabric of Rangers history in the same was as Molina, who has reached icon status in St. Louis.
The Cardinals have $101MM on the 2020 books and $115MM worth of luxury-tax obligations, so it’s certainly not a matter of whether they can fit a new Molina deal into the budget. Rather, the question becomes how the two sides account for a potentially waning level of production for Molina while still respecting the level of value he’s provided over the past decade and a half as he carved out a likely road to the Hall of Fame.